Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

More lies, damned lies and statistics


From time to time I browse through older posts of bloggers that were written before I started following them. Recently I came across Exploring Reasons Why “Atheists” Have Extreme Moral Prejudice Toward Atheists by Victoria NeuroNotes. What tweaked my interest in the post was that Victoria had put one of the words Atheists inside inverted commas. I read her article and the study link to an article about a global survey on which she based her article, but I failed to understand the purpose of the inverted commas. So then I read the articles in the following study and studies links, but was still none the wiser, and somewhat confused, as the latter two links were findings on morality itself, whereas the first link is to findings on the perception of morality. Not the same thing at all.

That discovery bothered me because in my experience it’s not like Victoria to make this sort of mistake. Just as puzzling was that she doubted the accuracy of the study because it was contrary to her personal anecdotal experience.

The findings of the study didn’t match my own experience either, but for a different reason. I have not seen any evidence that either theists or atheists regard atheists as less trustworthy. Then I read the notes link and part of it fell in place. That article refers to the same study, and this sentence jumped out at me:

Only in Finland and New Zealand, two secular countries, did the experiment not yield conclusive evidence of anti-atheist prejudice, said the team.

So that explains why my experience didn’t match the conclusion of the global study. Kiwis really don’t care about the religiosity of their fellow citizens. It’s also consistent with a 2009 NZ survey that gave atheism and all major religions (with the exception of Islam) a 90% approval rating. Islam lagged well behind with an 80% approval rating. A similar survey in the US at the same time gave atheists a 64% disapproval rating. This is also consistent with the study conclusion that one’s opinion of atheists is strongly influenced by the beliefs of society in which one lives, regardless of whether one is or is not religious.

It was only after I started reading the comments that the penny finally dropped and I understood why Victoria put inverted commas around Atheist: Perhaps many of the so called atheists weren’t really atheists at all. Now where have I heard similar types of statements before? One atheist even suggested that some Christians might have deliberately lied to distort the findings. There’s even the example of one atheist accusing another atheist of not being a “True Atheist”(TM) because the latter participates in the activities of a UU church. Sigh.

There was another thread to the criticism of the survey, and that was in regards to the motives of the researchers, but this wasn’t really pursued very far.

My curiosity aroused, I decided to investigate the findings a little further. I did locate the paper involved, but wasn’t prepared to fork out precious funds to purchase the right to view it, so I had to settle for this Supplementary Information PDF document. In it, in Supplementary Table 4. Religious demographics (%), I found what I was looking for.

The number of Christians, atheists and agnostics are similar to other surveys I’ve seen for young adults in Australia, the UK and the USA (the only ones other than NZ that I have any knowledge of). The number of Christians are 41%, 20%, and 79% respectively, and the number of NZ Christians is recorded as 22%. Again consistent with other surveys.

What I find interesting is how those who are not religious self identify. At first glance, the US has more atheists than NZ (UK: 22%; Australia:15%; US: 4%; NZ: 2%), and far more agnostics (UK: 15%; Australia: 15%; US: 5%; NZ: 0). It’s when considering those who identify as having no religion that there is a clear difference between NZ and all other countries (NZ: 71%; UK: 27%;  Australia: 14%; US: 10%). Even in Finland, only 25% self identify as having no religion.

What I believe this shows is the relaxed attitude Kiwis have towards religion, and that includes those who self identify as being religious. Religion is a private matter, and it doesn’t intrude into the public domain. Neither believers nor non-believers feel threatened by the other. This is in stark contrast to the USA, where to me as an outsider, both sides seem to be in a state of siege.

As to whether some Christians lied about their beliefs to deliberately distort the findings, I very much doubt it. The supplementary document includes the questions presented to the students, and I think one would need inside information (or assistance from their God) to know the purpose of the questionnaire. That some atheists are willing to believe that Christians will deliberately lie to present their faith more favourably is so very similar to the belief some Christians have about atheists, and  supports the last sentence in the previous paragraph – that a state of siege exists. To be honest, I find this very disappointing.

In a Medical Xpress article “Reminders of secular authority reduce believers’ distrust of atheists” we are informed that a majority of Americans would disapprove of their children marrying an atheist and would not vote for an atheist president. Compare that to NZ where we’ve had an atheist or agnostic government leader in 20 of the last 21 years and no one, including Christians are in the least bit bothered by it. I find the last paragraph in that article very compelling:

“There is evidence that gods and governments can fulfill similar roles,” Gervais says. People want the world to be orderly and controlled, but it seems like the authority that keeps people in line can be religious or secular. There’s some evidence that when people feel less confident in their government, they’re more likely to seek out religion. Norenzayan and Gervais find that in countries where the government is more effective and stronger, atheists are both more common and more trusted.

I think that the contrasting perspectives of Americans and Kiwis supports this hypothesis. So, what have I learnt from this exercise?

  • The trustworthiness that members of a minority group have towards fellow members is influenced by attitudes of those outside the group
  • That makagutu’s commentThere’s no difference between an ideologue of any ism” is absolutely true.

What I would like to know is why ideologues are a dime a dozen in America, but as scarce as hens’ teeth in Aotearoa New Zealand. Any suggestions?

Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and discovered I am autistic at the age of sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

8 thoughts on “More lies, damned lies and statistics

  1. Hello Berry. Interesting post. I’m going to post Swarn’s comment who is a scientist and did read the study:

    Swarn Gill
    October 1, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    I think you’ve definitely got some solid explanations here Victoria. After reading the study some other questions came to mind that I was unclear on or make me question the validity of the study in it’s robustness.

    Atheism is a generally small percentage of people in any group. How big is the sample size of atheists? That’s not really clear. In countries like India surveys show that atheists are only 0.7% of the population. Even if that is a bit higher, the amount of people who are atheists in the sample is probably big enough (around a few hundred atheists) but some other questions I have wonder if this is big enough. Especially since, from understanding, the choice of B) Teacher who does believe in God or B) Teacher who believes in God varied half and half among participants.

    Did they define what atheism meant or was this left up to the person to decide for themselves what atheism means. Were people given the choice of saying they are atheist, or was it an option that says “no religion”? From the paper I couldn’t find out how people’s atheism was determined. It also seems to me that the definition of what it means to be atheist might differ from country to country even among atheists. Perhaps some who reject the main religion of a country consider themselves atheist, even though they still believe in God, but simply reject the popular religion.

    Also while they correctly point out that answering B is a logical fallacy, nevertheless, if I am given the option A) teacher B) a teacher who does not believe in God’s. I might say to myself “B shouldn’t make any difference, or that information doesn’t seem relevant.” But I might also ask myself “Why did they put that extra bit there. Is the belief (or in some participant’s case the non-belief in God relevant in some way? Are they depicting someone who is driven by ideology in some way?” It just struck me as such an odd choice that by giving us additional information about the teacher that one might think that the information was important in some way, even if the experimenters wanted it to be arbitrary. People will often view extra information as being given for some particular reason.

    Finally I thought one of their follow up experiments seemed telling regard child molestation.

    “people intuitively assume that a priest who molests young boys for decades is more likely to be a priest who does not believe in God than a priest who does believe in God”.

    This was interesting to me because it made me wonder again about cultural differences in how we regard intentions for doing bad things. Whether or not you believe in God, if you think that that the tenets of a particular religion should lead to a certain moral outcome, then anybody who strays from that moral outcome is therefore not religious. Ignoring the fact that such people would easily identify as religious and believe many of the tenets of their religion to be true….even in the face of their own sins. My cousin Chris once described evangelicals in the southern U.S. as atheists…in that they behave like there is no God, on the pretense that if they understood their faith they wouldn’t do the things they do. I guess I just find myself wanting to understand how atheists in other countries might view themselves and to what degree critical thinking and knowledge led them to a position of identifying as atheist.”

    I don’t recall agnostics being included in the experiment.

    • Students self identified. If you look at Question 3 in the Supplementary document you will see a list of options offered to the students, but also keep in mind the notes below Supplementary Table 4.

  2. Wouldn’t the state of siege, which you acknowledge exists in the US, lend itself to (at least) the strong probability of lying to skew results? In the abortion ‘debate’ in the US, evangelicals have shown themselves more than willing to go out of their way to contrivance results/ends they wish.

    • It was an international survey. The US is just one of a number of countries involved. See supplementary document.

      The purpose of the survey was hidden. See supplementary document.

      The ratio of believers to non-believers is within the range of other surveys I’ve seen.

      The distrust of atheists applies across all faiths. Are you suggesting there’s a conspiracy across all faiths to discredit atheists but somehow the memo failed to reach Finland and New Zealand?

      Remember the survey was on perception, not on morality itself.

      Where minorities are viewed as inferior or less reliable than others, that prejudice often extends into the group itself. It’s apparent in lower socio-economic groups and many ethnic minorities. I’d be surprised of that effect was completely absent with all atheists.

      I follow a number of atheist blogs and unfortunately some are literally afraid to come out to friends family and associates. Some of them clearly have doubts about their self worth largely based on the extreme anti-atheist prejudices within their community. It’s perfectly understandable that those doubts be extended to other atheists. Not all are as confident as you are about their beliefs.

      • I think the comment was directed more to (and limited to) the US experience, and it’s not unreasonable given past behaviour of evangelicals.

        • Which comment are you referring to John? If you are referring to anti-atheist prejudice itself, it is evident in all countries surveyed except Finland and New Zealand. Even Australia and the UK, which, while not quite as secular as NZ, are approaching it, also display the prejudice.

          And while you are willing to believe that some folk with prejudice against atheists are prepared to lie, I don’t see you extending the same possibility to those who have a prejudice against all forms of religion, including religions not based on supernatural belief.

          • Sorry Barry. Just zeroing in on Victoria’s thought as to theists possibly lying to skew results. I think that pertained to just one of the studies. But you’re right; in the US environment there’s an equal possibility of atheists also lying to the same ends.

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